“I don’t remember how many times I had to learn heads, shoulders, knees and toes. I don’t know how many times I repeated that and with how many people.”
I’m talking with a 20-something-year-old Cambodian who spent a significant amount of their youth growing up in an orphanage. From personal experience they have an acute understanding of the problems the orphanage tourism industry has created and what needs to change.
In several previous blog posts I’ve written about the dynamics of the orphanage tourism industry, why it shouldn’t happen, why universities need to stop promoting these trips and what it’s like for a family to lose a child to an orphanage but I haven’t written about it from a child’s point of view.
How does it feel to see new volunteers coming day after day? Did you miss them when they left? Did you want to entertain them? How can foreign tourists be better at ‘doing good’.
So here I am, in Phnom Penh, listening to this young Cambodian (as requested by them they will remain anonymous) about the circumstances that forced them to flee home and end up in an orphanage.
“I was born in a town close to the Thai border. My personal story is that I ran away from home when I was 12 years old, because a lot of families (were) getting mental problems. Personally I think these problems came after the Khmer Rouge, after the war. And my dad was one of them. He suffered from it and he expressed it on the family so we have a lot issues which forced me to leave home.
“I came to Siem Reap and I was sent to an NGO (orphanage). In the NGO I was just a kid who had come to the city, living in NGO and meeting foreigners and doing traditional dancing.”
DC: Did you want to do traditional dancing for foreigners? Or is that just what you did?
“Well that’s what the option is, you have to. You don’t really have a choice because that’s the work you get. When we dance we got donations like food and a little bit of money, some random gifts from foreigners who come visit us like books or pens.”
DC: When you were living in an orphanage how did it feel when foreign volunteers came?
“It was heartbreaking. I see Korean, French, American, Australian. I see so many different foreigners, almost every day. Some of them come to visit us, to watch us dance. Some come to teach us English. I don’t remember how many times I had to learn heads, shoulders, knees and toes. I don’t know how many times I repeated that and with how many people. But all I know is when I see them they are my super stars. They have white skin, nice colour, they speak different language to mine; total superstars. To me I want to be their younger (sibling) and be part of them. When they come with some gift, as a kid I think, ‘that is really touching’. As a kid I connected. I will hug them, take photo with them, call them brother or sister. I will ask them when they come back again. Sometimes they give their email and they might write sometime or we can write to them. We feel connected.
“But what is heartbreaking is that you will never receive that back. You know when you meet them they are gone. It’s a really hard feeling. As a kid when I experienced this I felt like, even talking about it now, there are so many names going through my head, I will never see them again.”
DC: How do you think they felt about you?
“I think maybe they miss me to but I don’t know. As a kid I don’t know. A few years I worked at an NGO and I also spent my time with foreigners. I know when they left how I felt. But I know as an adult that I move on. As an adult I can do something else.
“When I think back as a kid I didn’t know what to do. All I know I was missing them and wishing that they were coming back. I don’t know how they feel when they go home. Maybe they meet their family and tell their family about me. Maybe that’s it.”
DC: Did you ever want the volunteers to stop coming?
“No. But I only wanted the ones who visit me to come back. When I was a kid it was fun, you know. Dancing. How many kids want to go to school when you can go dancing? I did want to go to school but at the same time I was dancing and stuff, getting a bit of money from foreign person. I was a kid having fun and forgetting those other things.”
Our conversation moves on to modern day voluntourism and the explosion of opportunities available in Cambodia for foreign tourists, many of which are with young child in orphanages and the perception of Cambodia through the lens of charity and pity.
DC: How do people view Cambodians? People like yourself?
“Well it can be different. A few would have a really amazing time in Cambodia because they know how friendly we are, they know how kind we are. They love living with us and living in Cambodia. I have a lot of friends who have stayed in Cambodia. They have made their home here.
“But some of them see Cambodian people as victims and that’s really sad because it’s based just on a little information they know about the war or what we’ve been through. They consider us low education, as someone who needs support or help. To me it sounds like we are ‘here’ (points down), they are ‘there’ (points up) and they came to Cambodia to help. That’s a lot.
DC: You said some people view themselves as ‘here’ and you’re ‘there’. How does that make you feel?
“I feel disappointed. I feel I’m sorry I don’t speak that good English but that doesn’t mean you know more than us. Because we know different things. You come from a modern world and we come from a survival country. We know different skills and we have different issues. But that doesn’t mean you can just come and analyse and think you are better. For me I think it’s not really fair.
“For example let’s say there a lot of Cambodians who can teach English. And because you can speak English from England, Australia or America you can just come and teach, without a teaching degree. It can be done but it’s not fair that a Cambodian earn less money to be a teacher. It’s happening a lot. I see lots of Cambodian teachers who are really good teachers but earn less.”
DC: When someone comes and they think they’re ‘here’ and you’re ‘there’, can you tell if someone thinks that? And how?
“Oh clearly. For example they start leading without asking. For example instead of asking us, how can we help or what can we do, they will say this is what we want to do, can you help us do this.”
“For me this isn’t the local with the idea. I see a lot with my own experience that they see the local as the one who will be the assistant.”
DC: How does that make you feel?
“I don’t really like it but I don’t know. Maybe in their country speaking English is very powerful. But I definitely think it’s not fair. I’m not just speaking about Cambodia but other countries, I see the locals get this treatment from the foreigners. I think it would be better if they come to cooperate rather than takeover.”
DC: If people do want to come to Cambodia to help, what would your advice be?
“My advice would be they should stop and think again. What do they want to help? Do a lot more research.”
DC: How would you recommend people educate themselves? On the internet or come to Cambodia to learn?
“Trying to find the right resource and the right network and being honest to yourself. This is very important, being honest to yourself.”
DC: What do you mean by that?
“It means do you really want to help or will it help you? Because if you say you want to help Cambodia, for example, you might have a bad problem with your family or broke up with your girlfriend and you just want to find a place to help yourself and choosing Cambodia and at the same time you find something to do. You are not being honest with yourself, you are not coming to help. You are coming to get out of your problem. If you are travelling and suddenly you want to teach English, that is not helping. You feel bad and you want to do it to feel better. I totally see that but that is not honest to yourself. Helping should be consistent and harmless.
“When I learnt first aid I always tell myself I would wish NGOs and volunteers would come to teach first aid as the goal is to ‘stop, think and act’.
“But most volunteers I don’t know if they do this. I don’t know if they stop to see if this harms them or if this harms the community, what they want to do and help. And think about themselves, do they break and down and think ‘does this project I want to do to help the community? ‘Will it last long enough to help or will it be effective?’ ‘Does the community really need it?’
“For example to volunteer to paint a school, is this really effective? Teaching English, does three days or 1 week, will it change or harm? I’m sure the intention is helping but there is a lot of potential for harm and putting the kid in a dangerous situation. I used to live in an NGO itself and I know how it feels along the way.”
DC: What can people do to help?
“Instead of feeling bad because you have a privileged life and flying one week somewhere to give back to the world, I think it’s better to start with yourself. For example don’t waste your clothes. Don’t use your privilege to harm lower class people or developing countries.
“If you go to buy shoes, where do they come from? Who has worked to make them? Do you think if you throw something away, where does it go? Your phone, t-shirt, dress. You could start helping already.
“If you want to help in other countries perhaps help by being a good tourist, a good traveller, being a responsible tourist. I think it would work better. If you do, others will do it and then everyone will do it and we won’t need volunteers. You don’t have to come to this country to volunteer. If you do this and spread the world, then people will be good global citizens and travellers. People won’t go and do something against the culture and abusing the country. This will make a change. I would see this as a big change.
“How many people want to volunteer? A lot. How many people want to change themselves? Not many.”
The person I spoke with was truly inspirational and so articulate in how they saw the problems of modern day tourism and the pitfalls on overseas volunteering. It was a pleasure to chat and I’d like to say ‘thank you’ to them for being so open with their experiences. I hope others can learn from this.